Three key benefits of cocoa flavanols
Author Miriam Ferrer, PhDLast updated 5th December 2019
- Ingredients & Nutrition
Studies suggest that the flavanols found in cocoa beans could have a range of positive effects. We take a look at three potential health benefits that have been the focus of the most research - blood vessel elasticity, cardiovascular health and brain function.
- What are cocoa flavanols?
- Blood vessel function
- Is chocolate beneficial for health and blood pressure?
- Improving memory and brain health
- How can I get enough cocoa flavanols to make a difference?
What are cocoa flavanols?
Flavanols are compounds that appear naturally in plants, where they fulfil a range of functions such as shielding the plant from UV radiation or imparting an unpleasant flavour that discourages herbivores. Unique varieties of flavanols are present in foods like apples, grapes and green tea, among others.
They are also found in the beans of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao), native to Central or South America. Foods derived from cocoa beans were long prized in native cultures and later in Europe for their perceived medicinal qualities.1
Today, scientists have begun to carry out research into the potential health applications of the compounds in cocoa, especially flavanols. Studies have revealed a range of positive effects.
Blood vessel function
The blood flowing through vessels like arteries and capillaries carries oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body.
With age, the walls of these vessels begin to harden. This can be related to atherosclerosis, and other causes include smoking and poor diet. These can restrict blood circulation.
The progression of atherosclerosis. Over time, fat can accumulate in blood vessel walls and evolve into fatty plaques. These plaques can become unstable and rupture, restricting blood flow and leading to serious heart health issues.
Poor circulation causes all kinds of unpleasant symptoms. It’s most associated with cold or numb extremities but it can cause everything from ulcers to digestive problems.2
Atherosclerosis can eventually lead to blockages in the blood vessels and an increased risk of strokes and other serious illnesses.
Cocoa flavanols cause the body to increase production of nitric oxide.3 This is produced by the body to fulfil multiple functions; it relaxes the blood vessels and allows their walls to dilate, which helps the body to remodel its vascular architecture and provides benefits for circulation.4
Is chocolate beneficial for health and blood pressure?
The release of nitric oxide and resulting dilation of the arteries also has benefits for people with high blood pressure. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of cocoa may also be connected.5
High cocoa consumption has been related to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease because it can reduce blood pressure.5 This has been observed in healthy people as well as those who are known to be at risk.6
Studies have shown that it can even decrease the likelihood that a person will suffer a stroke or heart attack.7, 8
Improving memory and brain health
In the brain, poor circulation is associated with fatigue, low mood, memory loss and difficulty concentrating.2
Cocoa flavanols can improve blood flow to the brain by increasing nitric oxide levels, which causes the walls of blood vessels to relax and dilate. They may also have positive effects on mood and memory, because flavanols accumulate in the brain regions associated with learning and memory such as the hippocampus.9 Animal models have shown neuroprotective qualities of cocoa flavanols in relation to normal ageing, strokes and dementia.10 Cocoa flavanols have also been shown to have an effect on mood and stress levels, though more research is needed and it is not yet clear whether any psychological changes are caused by nutrients in chocolate or the pleasure of eating it.11
How can I get enough cocoa flavanols to make a difference?
If you want to increase your intake of cocoa flavanols, you can eat more raw cocoa beans. However, most people get their intake of cocoa flavanols from eating cocoa-derived products like chocolate.
This may not be the best way to increase flavanol intake, as chocolate is high in both fat and sugar which will negate any positive effects. 200g of high-quality dark chocolate - representing 165% of the daily recommended intake of fat - contains just 100mg of cocoa flavanols.
Cocoa flavanols, found in the beans of the cocoa tree, have been the focus of recent research thanks to renewed interest in the potential health benefits of traditional remedies.
Flavanol content can vary dramatically between these products, with industrial processing known to reduce the levels of flavanols. A high-quality dark chocolate bar will contain more than commercial milk chocolate.
- Lippi D. Chocolate in history: food, medicine, medi-food. Nutrients. 2013;5(5):1573–1584. Published 2013 May 14. doi:10.3390/nu5051573
- Fraga CG, Litterio MC, Prince PD, Calabró V, Piotrkowski B, Galleano M. Cocoa flavanols: effects on vascular nitric oxide and blood pressure. J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2011;48(1):63–67. doi:10.3164/jcbn.11-010FR
- Heiss C, Rodriguez-Mateos A, Kelm M. Central role of eNOS in the maintenance of endothelial homeostasis. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2015;22(14):1230–1242. doi:10.1089/ars.2014.6158
- Carl L Keen, Roberta R Holt, Patricia I Oteiza, César G Fraga, Harold H Schmitz, Cocoa antioxidants and cardiovascular health, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 81, Issue 1, January 2005, Pages 298S–303S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/81.1.298S
- Ried K. Fakler P. Stocks NP. Effect of cocoa on blood pressure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Apr 25;4:CD008893. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008893.pub3
- Ludovici, Valeria et al. Cocoa, Blood Pressure, and Vascular Function. Frontiers in Nutrition 2017/08/01. 10.3389/fnut.2017.00036
- Larsson SC. Coffee, tea, and cocoa and risk of stroke. Stroke. 2014 Jan;45(1):309-14. doi: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.113.003131. Epub 2013 Dec 10.
- Buijsse B, Weikert C, Drogan D, Bergmann M, Boeing H. Chocolate consumption in relation to blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease in German adults. Eur Heart J. 2010 Jul;31(13):1616-23. doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehq068. Epub 2010 Mar 30.
- Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar;75(3):716-27. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x.
- Sokolov AN, Pavlova MA, Klosterhalfen S, Enck P. Chocolate and the brain: neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Dec;37(10 Pt 2):2445-53. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.06.013.
- Scholey A, Owen L. Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2013 Oct;71(10):665-81. doi: 10.1111/nure.12065.